Sunday, July 7, 2019

adaptation, aesthetic, & alienation

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Gustav Klimt, Tannenwald (1902)

Sometimes a friend will email me a photo of a bird they spotted and ask me if I can identify it for them. More often than never I get asked about winged insect and spiders, too. Half the time I can't answer without pulling a field guide from my bookshelf, and I freely admit the fact. Still, the people neighborhood had no shortage of streets to roam; why did I visit the woods instead? An affinity for "nature" probably had little to do with it. I wanted to be alone. I didn't want anyone to see me as I paced, talked to myself, and acted out dialogues and dramas of my own clumsy invention. If and when I came to appreciate the parkland for its own sake, the mode in which I engaged with it didn't change. The woods were an ambiance. I recall few concrete details from those afternoons. There were trees and rocks. Leaves on the ground. Little green plants during the warm months and briers all year round. There were hills and a path along a creek. I couldn't discriminate one type of woody plant from any other or hear anything more significant than "tweet tweet" from the canopy, and had no interest in expanding my knowledge regarding what lived out there. I didn't touch anything. I seldom paused. I don't think I ever focused for very long on any one object I encountered. I might as well have been shambling through in my life seem to believe I have some idea of what I'm talking about when we talk about "nature." I'm not sure that's true. All I've done is try to pay attention when I go outside and occasionally take notes.

It's a fairly recent habit.

When I was a teenager, I frequently retreated to the Jackson Brook trail to take shelter from household tensions, the sturm und drang of puberty, and the despondency of public education. The a green and greybrown cloud.

Nearly a decade later, during my aimless and idle mid-twenties, I'd visit the Hidden Valley trail across town when I had a day off from Borders or the small office I worked in for a while, or if I needed a break from getting high and writing about Final Fantasy games. This was when the cloud finally began to concresce.

The influence of Jack Collom encouraged me to listen more closely to the cheeps, yeeps, squawks, and deedeedees overhead. I learned to recognize when I was in proximity to a cardinal without seeing the signal vermilion flash between trees, and discovered the name of the bird that had encouraged any number of melancholy summer moods on any number of prior summer afternoons with its hollow, piping song (the mourning dove), and could recognize him before he opened his beak. And this was when I became enthralled and haunted by the song of the mysterious (and threatened) wood thrush.

My casual interest in Zen (vis-à-vis haiku) and often intense predilection for the Beat poets at that time indirectly attuned me to the chant of the cicadas, and then to the sounds of insects in general. I figured out which trills in the meadows were the ringing stridulations of crickets, and which faint fricative thrummings had grasshoppers at their source. I learned that the unseen racket-rousers of August nights were katydids—not cicadas, as common wisdom has it. My discovery of ebony jewelwing damselfies in the vicinity of Clark's Pond was the catalyst for an adoring fascination with odonata that the last several years have only intensified.

It wasn't until after I relocated to Pennsylvania and took a crash course in permaculture that I returned to Jackson Brook and Hidden Valley with a learner's eye for their flora. I noted that both forests are primarily composed of birch, beech, maple, and witch hazel, with not uncommon instances of oak, sweetgum, hickory, and tulip poplar. (Omake: the centerpiece in the last panel of this very old 8EB strip is a tulip poplar on the Jackson Brook trail.) I observed that skunk cabbage is the first plant to sprout in late winter and the first to wilt in late summer. I learned that the ubiquitous little white flowers on tall leafy stalks at the edge of the woods are called garlic mustard, that they're edible, and taste like their name. As I became better acquainted with these forests' particulars, the depth and breadth of my ignorance came sharply into focus. For one thing, I never had to look far to spot some wildflower or fern or shrub whose name I didn't know. And even so: being able to tack the correct vernacular label on a thing exhibiting such-and-such bark texture and this-or-that leaf shape is well and good, but to nominate is not to understand.

Aristotle says that to possess knowledge something is to understand the causes or reasons for why it is what it is; by his metric, all I possess are some buggy green inklings. This plant—this entity or species—how is it situated within the imbricated fields of continuous activity that constitute the actual entity of the ecosystem? How does this particular environmental constituent or type of constituent contribute to the aggregate, and how does the aggregate influence this particular individual or type? What is this place becoming?

Hell if I know.

Waretown, New Jersey

Now that I'm settled in Philadelphia, I very seldom visit those woods. More often I take day trips to the Pine Barrens, where the botanical factoids I've cobbled together from the North Jersey highlands is inapplicable. Familiarizing myself with the life of the pitch pine forests and cedar swamps has been been like learning a new language.

On the other hand, returning to my hometown and revisiting my old haunts is often like trying to get re-naturalized to a culture whose tongue I'm no longer accustomed to operating in.

In either case, my daytime excursions are always revivifying, but rarely unaccompanied by a faint heartache.

I am always conscious—acutely so, at times—of being an interloper. A guest, at best. A visitor to a foreign country who is received amicably and can move about comfortably, but knows there's no place for him here. When I visited Caroline in Berlin a couple months ago, I was utterly dependent on her for the duration of my stay. It was hard not to feel a little useless. Caroline may be an immigrant, and she claims her German is somewhat glitchy, but she's nonetheless become of her adopted country. She knows how to be there, and I do not. The same sense of ineffectiveness steals into me when I'm out in the woods.

Learned adaptation to an environment (whether we're talking about a physical setting or a social milieu) consists of an array of conditioned responses to stimuli. B.F. Skinner's term for the functional relationship between stimulus and acquired response is operant discrimination. Of the stimuli perpetually washing over you, the ones to which you respond are those implicated in your lifetime's history of reinforcement. To call an individual "adapted" to a setting is to say that he or she will respond effectively (or appropriately) to objects and cues to which the outsider does not. Noticing is itself a conditioned behavior. The objects and events that catch your attention are those that are (or have been) relevant to you.

On the face of it, this is obvious. Imagine you're out driving and your car's guts start making a worrisome rattling noise. If you stop to pop the hood and peer at the engine, chances are you won't know what the hell you're looking at or what to do with it. As a matter of fact, you don't know what the hell you're looking at because you don't know what to do with it. There is no behavior in your repertoire that has ever proven effective with regard to an internal combustion engine, and discernment is fostered by the performance of effective behavior. The auto mechanic has an extended history of receiving positive reinforcement from successfully tinkering with engine parts: for him the behavior of discriminating one valve or belt from another has acquired reinforcing properties.

If you'd prefer a less mechanistic framing of the scenario, we could defer to somebody like Kant, who might say that the matter of the mechanic's cognition is identical to yours (you sorry mechanical illiterate, you) though its form differs. In either case, the difference is a direct consequence of the variances in your personal histories. The mechanic's experiences have primed him to respond to stimuli to which you do not, starting with the simple act of noticing—which implies differentiating. You see a solid object; he sees the individual pieces.

If you were to visit a wildlife preserve with someone who's been a regular birdwatcher for thirty years, you'd likely find that she's not only capable of recognizing calls that have no significance to you, but that she demonstrates an aptitude for spotting birds that your eyes would have simply passed over. Not only does she have a better idea of what she's looking for, she's more practiced in seeing birds than you. If you were to take a walk with an experienced hunter, he might pick up on evidences of animal activity (tracks, scat, chewed branches, etc.) that you'll overlook because you haven't been trained to seek them out.

We could go down the list, inserting a landscape painter, insect collector, hipster forager, etc. into the scenario, and repeat the refrain as many times as we care to. The upshot is the same. But: unless we're dealing with an outdoor polymath, any one these people will probably possess only a specialized, narrow knowledge of the things around them. Their practical understanding will be far from comprehensive. Why should it be? They're hobbyists, after all. Weekend woodspeople.

Sparkling jewelwing (Calopteryx dimidiata). I've only encountered
them in the Pine Barrens.

During my most recent visit to the Pine Barrens I marveled to imagine the perspectives of the people who inhabited the area before the Europeans invaded the continent. Though it's impossible to extrapolate a worldview from historical data, we can adduce the environmental fixtures and socially necessary activities on which it was predicated. The Lenape who formed small settlements in the Barrens were people for whom the woods were crossroads, apothecary, meat market, community garden, apparel shop, lumberyard, hardware store, and site of ancestral mythology (their word for the region was Popuessing— "Place of the Dragon"). If they viewed the demarcation between the things of  "nature" and of Homo sapiens as a much more permeable barrier than we do, it would have been because their affairs were seldom so far removed from the vital rhythms of the ecosystem as to be considered in isolation from it.

We do not romanticize the Lenape by pointing out these facts. The point is that they must have possessed a working comprehension of and an intimate appreciation for their environment because they were fully of it.

We might be entitled to pat ourselves on our collective back for possessing scientific knowledge our extirpated predecessors lacked: we know exactly where it is the birds disappear to during the winter, and we know the astronomical cause of the seasons and the meteorological processes that produce rainclouds. We can boast of understanding photosynthesis, DNA, and the evolution of species; we tacitly congratulate ourselves for belonging to a culture that has grown powerful through its proficiency in empirical science and engineering. But whatever general understanding we may command regarding the things of "natural" places, most of us have only a piddling comprehension of the specific entities, events, and relations that constitute them.

When we visit a open space, we don't know what to do there. We operate with a truncated repertoire. The habits of productive activity, consumption, leisure, social engagement, and so on—the very stuff of our lives—that would be activated during a walk down a city block, a day at the workplace, or an evening in one's own household find no (or very few) eliciting objects. What do we do then? We walk around and look at things and enjoy the atmosphere. We act the same way we do in an art gallery. For many of us, "nature" is nothing more than an aesthetic experience, standing in disjunction from the praxis of everyday life (as per Peter Bürger's remarks on bourgeoisie or capitalistic artworks).

Our estrangement from the nonanthropized parts of the world has recast our sporadic visits to them as luxury trips. The tasting of a place's flavor. It must necessarily be thus as long as such environments bring nothing palpably to bear on our subsistence, our work, our day-to-day lives. We urbanites presumably expend time and monetary resources to visit them because their "aesthetic," which we find both pleasant and salubrious, is absent or lacking in the places where we live and carry out the activities necessary to sustain ourselves. So, when we can afford to, we put these activities on hold to spend some time soaking in an ambiance displaced from our customary habits. In a better-designed civilization—one in which human settlements conscientiously integrated "natural" elements into their infrastructure and gave them room to breathe—this might not be necessary. But here we are, breathing the carcinogenic air and shambling over the sweltering asphalt here on our side of the man/nature divide.

The malaise that chews at the ends of my nerves when I'm out tromping through the mud and moss is a recognition of mutual uselessness. I and the woods I love are incompatible entities. The woods don't feed, clothe, or shelter me, and in the equation of the woods' dynamic equilibrium, my presence adds or subtracts next to nil. We are compartmentalized, disintegrated. I'll never be anything but a tourist; the most I can ever do is just pass through.

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